Amazing Growth : Sleepy Baptist College Takes Off Under New Leader

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Five years ago Los Angeles Baptist College was a sleepy, financially troubled institution where run-down buildings cried out for new paint and professors had trouble remembering the last time they received a pay raise. Enrollment, once near 400, had slipped to 275 students.

Now rechristened The Master's College, the school is one of the fastest-growing Christian liberal arts colleges in the nation, known for an energetic student body devoted to evangelizing in Southern California and throughout the world. Enrollment hit 845 this fall and officials at the Santa Clarita campus say they hope to expand to 1,500 students, maybe even 2,500.

Some might call the change a miracle.

Others call it a testimony to the appeal and influence of the Rev. John MacArthur.

MacArthur, pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, is familiar to thousands of radio listeners as the voice of "Grace to You," a syndicated half-hour broadcast heard over more than 200 stations nationwide. Overseas, MacArthur's Bible lessons reach listeners from London to Fiji. With an average Sunday attendance of 8,000, the nondenominational Grace Community Church ranked ninth among the nation's 100 largest Protestant churches in a recent national survey.

Since he was named president of The Master's College in 1985, MacArthur has presided over unprecedented growth at the fully accredited four-year school, a fundamentalist institution where Jerry Falwell once preached at chapel and the code of conduct prohibits alcohol, tobacco, dancing and "viewing unwholesome motion pictures."

MacArthur was offered the presidency partly because his name would draw students and donors. He acknowledged with a chuckle, "They didn't choose me for my experience."

But trustees and even MacArthur have been surprised at how his wide radio following generated cash and students at a time when colleges nationwide report shrinking enrollments.

"He took it on and the place just exploded," said R. W. Mackey, chairman of the business department.

A fund-raising drive began with a prayer meeting of trustees who asked for help meeting the next payroll. Donations came seemingly out of nowhere. A longtime MacArthur listener in Atlanta left the college $2.5 million in her will. Another listener wrote a check for $1.4 million.

In MacArthur the trustees have found an articulate and personable leader who, in a soothing voice perfect for radio, describes himself as just a Bible teacher. Most students and teachers address him as John.

MacArthur has decried the spread of "high-tech super churches" that put pageantry above substance and offers scholarly verse-by-verse examinations of Scripture. He preaches that the Bible is inerrant, free of mistakes or untrue statements.

"In evangelical Christianity, John is a major leaguer," said Roger Carey, a Baptist minister from Visalia and former college trustee.

The sports metaphor is apt for a minister's son who played baseball and football at the now-defunct Los Angeles Pacific College. He thought of turning pro before opting for the seminary.

MacArthur is more than a figurehead, said Carey, students and administrators. Despite a demanding schedule that leaves little time for the college after his radio ministry, frequent travels and duties at Grace Community Church, MacArthur has set the tone at the college through the hiring of key administrators.

"John has put his theological stamp on the school," Carey said.

That stamp is nowhere more apparent than in the institution's new name--The Master's College. As Stuart Epperson, a 19-year-old communications major, put it: "That apostrophe says a lot about the school. We want to be a testament to Jesus Christ."

MacArthur chose the new name because it freed the college from a single denomination and emphasizes the role of God in the school's life.

"I think it has a ring of dignity to it," MacArthur said. "We needed a break with the past."

That past has roots going back to 1927 when the school was founded as Los Angeles Baptist Theological Seminary. Later renamed Los Angeles Baptist College, or LABC, the school moved from Los Angeles to the 27-acre Happy Jack Dude Ranch in rural Newhall in 1961.

The college won accreditation in 1975 from the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges, the principal accrediting body in the west, and awards degrees in a variety of fields, including music, history, mathematics and biblical studies. Tuition and housing cost about $10,500 a year.

But beginning in the late 1970s, enrollment began to slip and donations fell off. The college's traditional base of support, the General Assn. of Regular Baptist Churches, focused its work on the Midwest and failed to generate new donors or young members on the West Coast, Mackey said.

"Young people were staying away in droves," said Mackey, who did his doctoral dissertation on the switch from LABC to The Master's College. The school, once 70% Baptist, was only 30% Baptist by 1985.

That same year, when trustees offered MacArthur the presidency, the college had $2.2 million in long-term debt, $500,000 in short-term debt and only $4 million in assets.

MacArthur's appointment changed all that.

Soon the debt was paid off and the college began purchasing adjoining land, expanding to 110 acres. A new 163-student Master's Seminary, affiliated with the college, was created in 1986. Today the college has $5 million in new debt, but with $30 million in assets, the burden is not unreasonable, said James W. Rickard, chairman of the Board of Trustees.

The college's healthier bank account has allowed the administration to raise salaries and expand a small library of 32,000 volumes to 120,000, a large collection for a Christian college that size. And the college has purchased 25,000 volumes on theology from a defunct New Jersey Bible college with a $137,000 donation.

The administration has expanded the number of full-time faculty with doctoral degrees, considered one benchmark of an institution's academic prowess. According to the Washington-based Christian College Coalition, 33% of the faculty at The Master's College had doctorates last year, the lowest percentage among the coalition's 78 institutions.

But since 1985, more than half of new faculty members hired have had doctoral degrees and others are working on dissertations, said John P. Stead, vice president of academic affairs.

Almost all students who apply are accepted. "In admission requirements, we're more like a junior college," Stead said. But "our mission is not the same" as secular schools, and the students are held to rigorous standards once on campus, he said.

Trying to balance the academic with the religious, the college teaches creationism but also exposes students to evolutionary theory in courses for degrees in biological science and physical science, Stead said.

The rise of The Master's College has displeased some leaders in the Illinois-based General Assn. of Regular Baptist Churches, a loose confederation whose member churches had been Los Angeles Baptist College's financial backbone. "Certainly, it's no longer considered a liberal arts college for Baptist churches," said Vernon Miller, editor of the association's Regular Baptist Press.

MacArthur defends the change. "You have to have some profile. This little college had no identity."

Today, that identity is a mixture of evangelical zeal mixed with bubbly optimism and an obsession with athletics. Trustees told MacArthur they wanted to see a basketball team that can beat Biola, the school's powerful rival.

Some Santa Clarita residents say it's easy to spot the college's students by their clean-cut appearance. "I know this sounds silly," said a resident who lives near the college, "but they sort of radiate."

Nonetheless, the college's devotion to projecting the perfect image can produce stifling regimentation, some critics say.

Michelle Carter, twice the college's athlete of the year and captain of the women's basketball and volleyball teams, said she withdrew from the college under pressure in 1987 after she admitted breaking the rule against dancing.

Carter, who later was graduated from Cal State San Bernardino, said she had been unfairly accused of breaking other rules by fellow students who were encouraged to snitch by an administration bent on projecting a perfect image. "It wasn't really the issue of dancing," she said. "They were wondering why I was defying authority and breaking rules."

MacArthur would only say that dancing alone would not be cause for removing a student, and Donald E. Hescott, executive vice president, said the college encourages students to work out problems among themselves. "We don't have a snitching system," he said.

Although still strongly identified with MacArthur, the college is starting to forge its own identity, much to the relief of trustees and MacArthur himself.

But Rickard said MacArthur's role is already changing.

"John can help get students here," Rickard said. "John can't keep them here."

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